When the COVID-19 pandemic started last year, all resources were diverted towards it and healthcare professionals were called upon to treat COVID infected patients. Things had just started getting better in January, and healthcare services, polio drives and routine immunizations were being resumed when we were struck again by the second wave.
Once again, the focus is completely on COVID-19 and how to save lives. This is of course important. But we must not forget that there are people who need other professional help too – pregnant mothers who need to access clinics for a regular check-up, need assistance with deliveries, children who need routine vaccinations or need SNCUs, elders who need health check-ups and surgeries.
It is important to maintain essential health and accelerate the resumption of disrupted healthcare services, hit by the pandemic, as an integral part of the COVID-19 response.
The pandemic has put immense strain on health systems across the State. The previous disease outbreaks have shown that disruption to essential services caused by an outbreak can be more deadly than the outbreak itself. We must fast-track efforts and do all we can to avoid that happening while continuing efforts to break COVID-19 transmission chains.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, repurposing of health workers, cancellation of elective care, closure of outpatient services, and changes in treatment policy have significantly impacted the delivery of essential services. Additionally, changes in health-seeking behaviour, constrained physical access and financial hardship have also limited service uptake. People are scared of accessing health services as they feel they may get infected with COVID19 and as a result, suffer and often lose their lives to diseases other than the virus.
Notably, critical life-saving services to help women give birth are now severely curtailed by the second wave.
In India, there are 27 million births every year. Now with COVID-19 causing disruptions in medical supply chains and straining financial and human resources, other critical health services are impacted such as antenatal, prenatal care, childbirth, or intensive care services for newborns and children. This will have a negative impact on our Universal Health Coverage.
Data from the first wave in 2020 shows disruptions and decline in essential maternal and child health services, like institutional deliveries and routine immunization for children. The current surge, which is many folds compared to last year, is likely to cause more significant disruptions to quality health services for mothers and children.
In the crisis of health services, mothers and children should not become collateral damage in the fight against the virus. And we must not let decades of progress on reducing preventable child and maternal deaths be lost.
We need to put in place innovative ways of leveraging the potential of telemedicine; developing novel supply chains and medicine dispensary options; and better engaging the private sector and communities for the treatment of non-communicable diseases. Maintaining essential health services as a core part of the pandemic response is a critical part of COVID-19 response and we must focus on it so that the public doesn’t suffer – the pregnant mother, newborn children and elders in need of treatment get the specialised care they need.
We must strengthen our evidence and knowledge base on how essential services can be maintained. We must continue to innovate, accelerate our efforts to sustain our gains while dealing with the pandemic.
Strengthening health system resilience with a focus on primary health care is key to maintaining and strengthening essential health services amid our new normal.
The spread of COVID-19 has reiterated the importance of building strong primary health care systems to provide the services required to meet most people’s needs, even during emergencies.
We must act with speed and scale to restore and maintain essential health services to protect our many gains in Jharkhand.
Our challenge is indeed immense. However,I am certain that together we can ensure that all people can access the services they need to stay healthy and productive throughout the pandemic and beyond.
(The author is Chief of Field Office of UNICEF Jharkhand)